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Political Borders, Epistemological Boundaries, and Contested Knowledges: Constructing Dams and Narratives in the Mekong River Basin

Department of Geography and Environmental Studies Program, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, NH 03755, USA
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Water 2019, 11(3), 413; https://doi.org/10.3390/w11030413
Received: 13 July 2018 / Revised: 13 August 2018 / Accepted: 3 January 2019 / Published: 26 February 2019
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Abstract

The Mekong River Basin of mainland Southeast Asia is confronting a series of intertwined social, political, and biophysical crises. The ongoing construction of major hydroelectric dams on the river’s main channel and tributary systems—particularly in the basin’s lower and more populated reaches—is leading to significant socioecological changes. Multiple scientific studies have suggested that proceeding with the planned dam construction will disrupt the region’s incredibly productive fisheries and threaten the livelihoods of millions of basin residents. These effects will almost certainly be exacerbated by global and regional climate change. Yet increased understanding of the adverse consequences of dams for the Mekong’s hydrological and ecological processes is having minimal impact on decision-making around hydropower development. While local communities, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and certain scientists draw on this knowledge to oppose or question accelerated dam building, state officials and hydropower developers have turned to the expertise of engineering and technological assessments in order to justify dam construction. Drawing on work in political geography, political ecology, and science and technology studies (STS), we ask two primary questions. First, why does engineering/technological knowledge retain so much legitimacy and authority in the face of mounting scientific knowledge about ecological change? Secondly, how are narratives of progress deployed and co-produced in the contested epistemologies of large dams as development? We conclude with some examples of how contestations over dams seem to be shifting epistemological boundaries in meaningful ways, creating new spaces for knowledge production and transfer. To answer these questions, we focus on three contested dams that are at various stages of construction in the basin: the nearly complete Xayaburi Dam, the under-construction Don Sahong Dam, and the planned Pak Beng Dam. The research advances understandings of the politics of contested knowledges as they become manifest in the conceptualization and governance of large dams in transboundary basins. View Full-Text
Keywords: hydropower; Mekong River Basin; political ecology; STS; public knowledge controversies hydropower; Mekong River Basin; political ecology; STS; public knowledge controversies
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Fox, C.A.; Sneddon, C.S. Political Borders, Epistemological Boundaries, and Contested Knowledges: Constructing Dams and Narratives in the Mekong River Basin. Water 2019, 11, 413.

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